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St. Pete’s Sunken Gardens comes to life in new children’s book

Sophie & Zack at Sunken Gardens takes children on an adventure at the historic attraction, where some plants and trees are more than a century old.
The Sunken Gardens Forever Foundation has published a children's book, "Sophie & Zack at Sunken Gardens." The project includes giving a copy of the book to third graders in Title I schools in St. Petersburg and inviting them to visit the gardens on a docent-led trip. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

ST. PETERSBURG — Pig frogs. Green tree frogs. Bullfrogs. A giant turtle named Mac. And a butterfly garden. All are discoveries to be made in Sunken Gardens and, by extension, in a new children’s book about the lush, unexpected hideaway off Fourth Street N.

Sophie & Zack at Sunken Gardens, a colorful, interactive book with cutouts and pages to unfold, takes children on an adventure through the historic gardens, where some plants and trees are more than 100 years old. The book, published by the Sunken Gardens Forever Foundation, will be given to 3rd graders in Title I schools in St. Petersburg.

Pink Flamingos show off their color in Sunken Gardens. The Sunken Gardens Forever Foundation has published "Sophie & Zack at Sunken Gardens." The project includes giving a copy of the book to third graders in Title I schools in St. Petersburg and inviting them to visit the gardens on a docent-led trip. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

“We’re hoping to teach them to have an appreciation for their heritage, an appreciation for historic sites in St. Pete and all the scientific information, sustainability type of information,” said Sunken Gardens Forever Foundation president Robin Reed. “I feel like preservation and appreciation of history and culture, all of those things, are going to depend on the younger generation and it’s very important that they be encouraged.”

Related: Sunken Gardens envisions children's educational garden

Besides distribution in Title I schools, the book will go on sale at the gardens beginning Sunday during the annual Flamingo Festival, which runs from noon to 4:30 p.m.

Author Robin Gonzalez, who grew up visiting the attraction, seemed a natural choice to write Sophie & Zack at Sunken Gardens. The fourth-generation Tampa resident — and former social studies teacher at Dixie Hollins High School and the now closed Riviera Middle School — has long been active in historic preservation. She’s also written Souvenir of St. Petersburg, Florida, Views from the Vinoy and two books about Henry B. Plant’s Tampa legacy: Maggie & Max at the Museum and If Our Hotel Could Talk.

Left to Right: Robin Reed, St. Petersburg, president of the Sunken Gardens Forever Foundation, and Robin Gonzalez, Tampa, author of "Sophie & Zack at Sunken Gardens," show off the new children's book and the main characters, Zack and Sophie, at the gardens. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

Gonzalez said she and illustrator Peter Bajohr drove to St. Petersburg to discuss the book with Sunken Gardens’ nature preserve supervisor Jennifer Tyson.

“When I do a project, I collect things. I had tons of Sunken Gardens postcards," Gonzalez said. "Jennifer Tyson pulled out a bunch of her stuff and she walked Peter and me through the gardens.”

Gonzalez added that she and Bajohr started planning the book on their way back to Tampa.

The books, a $35,000 project, will be distributed over a three-year period. “We will go to six schools a year," said Gonzalez, who donated her services as author. "Our plan is we will go and read to all these kids and give them these books a week or two” before docents lead visits to the gardens. The tours will include signs featuring illustrations from the book and 42-inch cutout figures of Sophie and Zack.

The work introduces children to the garden’s 80-foot tall, 115-year-old royal palms and takes them through winding paths and on visits to parrots, macaws and the famous pink flamingos. Readers will learn that a group called Flamingos Forever raised more than $40,000 to restock the flamingo flock.

Related: Sunken Gardens hopes to renew its flock of pink flamingos

“As we neared our fundraising goal to purchase the flamingos, Bill Raspovic from Hudson, Florida, called out of the blue and said he wanted to top off the fund. His $15,000 check enabled us to reach our goal in one fell swoop," Reed said, mentioning as well the efforts of Marion’s on Fourth Street N, which held flamingo fundraising events at the store.

Visitors look at Pink Flamingos in Sunken Gardens. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

The garden, which is a local historic landmark, was owned and developed as a tourist attraction by the Turner family. George Turner, a plumber who moved to St. Petersburg in the early 20th century, bought land at 1825 Fourth St. N that would become Turner’s Sunken Gardens. The property included a sinkhole and a shallow pond, which he drained, leaving, according to the children’s book, “mucky, rich soil.” At its lowest point, the garden is 15 feet below street level and it’s where Mac the turtle lives.

The Turner family sold the gardens to the city in 1999, after St. Petersburg residents voted to buy the attraction with a one-time tax assessment. It had been the oldest family-run attraction in Florida, but attendance had declined. In its heyday, as many as 2,000 people a day visited the gardens. Developers wanted the property for commercial or residential projects and there was even a proposal to turn it into a nudist resort.

“What I think is so amazing is that the citizens of St. Pete voted themselves a tax increase, with the resulting funds to be used to purchase the property. They cared that much for a place they may not have visited since childhood, but was remembered as a very special place,” Reed said.

Reed, who lives with her husband, Joe, in an Old Northeast home that is a historic landmark, said children are the preservationists of the future.

"I hope the book will inspire them to appreciate and learn more about their heritage, as well as social studies, science and math — and all in a fun and entertaining way,” she said.

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